Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Opening Night

(Chaz and Roger Ebert)

The vintage marquee in front of the Virginia Theatre is no longer there, but otherwise things seemed to be the same as usual at Roger Ebert's Film Festival. Anticipation was high to get things underway, and what better start can you ask for than seeing one of the all-time greats, METROPOLIS, and a live score performed by The Alloy Orchestra. I believe this is the first repeat film at Ebertfest, as it and the band were here for the fourth festival in 2002.

Of course, the easy justification for bringing it back are the restored scenes that make this version as close to an original full cut as is likely to be seen. I believe I've seen three different cuts of the film, with this being my second encounter with this so-called complete METROPOLIS.

Plenty has been written about Fritz Lang's 1927 film, and all of it is going to sound more studied than whatever I type out here at almost 2 a.m. Instead, permit me to rave briefly about this movie. It boasts unbelievably audacious filmmaking. The sets! The setpieces! The sustained climax that must be at least forty minutes long! Basically everything from the "Furioso" title card on is an action avalanche on a ridiculous scale. The restored version makes a lot more narrative sense. The Alloy's live score was a real treat to hear again. The only bad thing about their performance is that we don't have it to look forward to yet in this year's festival.

(Michael Phillips with Natural Selection's writer/director Robbie Pickering and actress Rachael Harris)

Opening Night's second film was the late addition NATURAL SELECTION. After seeing and admiring it at this year's South by Southwest, where it won the jury and audience awards for narrative feature, Ebert found extra room for it.

Rachael Harris stars as Linda, whose marriage of 25 years has been abstinent for nearly the entire duration. Since she is unable to conceive, her husband's religious beliefs compel him to avoid having sex with her purely for pleasure. When Linda is called to see him at the hospital after he passes out while making what turns out to be his regular contribution to a fertility clinic, she feels more than a little betrayed. She was oblivious to how he'd been channeling all of that pent-up energy.

Linda's husband asks that she find the children created from his donations, which eventually leads this frumpy Texas Christian to the Florida dwelling of Raymond (Matt O'Leary), a junkie and escaped convict. She desperately wants to bring this biological son back to her husband. Their misadventures on the road home comprise the majority of the film.

NATURAL SELECTION got off on the wrong foot with me, enough so that it never recovered. Much of the early humor comes from mocking devout conversatives--or an exceptionally rare type of fundamentalist--and there's nothing especially funny about these cheap shots. (In a similar manner, CEDAR RAPIDS got off to a very shaky start with its sneering attitude toward professed Christians while not demonstrating any tangible understanding of those who identify in such a way.)

I didn't find the characters to be particularly credible, especially when they're together. A pivotal scene in a dark restaurant finds Linda and Raymond exchanging painful secrets. The sequence is well-acted, but not for a second did I buy that these two people would connect in this manner. The shortcoming is in the writing rather than the performances. Harris handles the shifts between serious and jokey tones with aplomb. The derision toward whatever beliefs her character holds--something that's never clarified yet ought to be--is in writer-director Robbie Pickering's managing of the material, not her acting.

The loneliest time in a crowded movie theater is when practically everyone is laughing except you, and was I ever feeling it during this film. When you're not enjoying something, it's easy to turn to nitpicking something to death. (I'd point to the unfailing tracking sense that one character possesses.) To its credit, NATURAL SELECTION displays some visual adroitness and eventually settles into a decent storytelling groove. Lose the caricatured character constructions, though.

Opening Night grades:


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